Two years ago, on their farm outside Lexington, Ky., Virginia Payson and her husband, Charles, used to make a point of taking off every day in their gasoline-driven golf cart to visit the yearlings. Inevitably, they ended up unhinging the gate and driving into the largest paddock, where six colts were pastured. Of those six, the Paysons owned four; the other two were boarders. Despite his suspicious knees, one of the two, socially speaking, was a stick-out.
"I loved him," Virginia says. "He was very calm. He was very intelligent in the sense that he looked at everything. And he was very aggressive." One day the Paysons drove into the field, and the colts approached the cart. "They all came up and sniffed and jumped back, sniffed and jumped back," Virginia recalls. All except that one colt, a son of the sensational sprinter Star de Naskra, out of a winning daughter of Cornish Prince. "He jumped up and put his two feet into the golf cart."
Charles was instantly smitten. "This one loves me," he told his wife. "He wants to sit in my lap."
That fall, when the colt appeared on the block at Keeneland, the Paysons didn't hesitate to keep an old friend in the family. They bought him for $43,000 and named him after their farm manager at the time, Ted Carr, calling him Carr de Naskra.
Last Saturday, as unruffled and aggressive as he was as a yearling, Carr de Naskra made it suddenly and emphatically known that he's the best 3-year-old colt in America by winning Saratoga's $250,000-added Travers Stakes, the historic Midsummer Derby, by three-quarters of a length. Under America's premier jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., who thought enough of his chances that he winged it from California to New York to ride him, Carr de Naskra raced in a trap for all but the final 200 yards, swung out when the leaders started moonwalking in front of him early in the stretch, then took off sprinting through a final blistering eighth of a mile to win it. The finish was breathtaking, with jockey Pat Day, on Pine Circle, closing furiously on the rail and Pincay doing the huckabuck to stave him off.
"I looked back and you were flyin'!" Pincay said to Day in the jockeys' room after the race.
"I got right up to you and you got away from me," Day told him. "You was drawin' away again at the wire! Everywhere you go you beat me. You beat me in Omaha. You beat me at Belmont Park. You beat me here."
That Pincay did, but the race and its aftermath really belonged to the Paysons. As they sauntered arm-in-arm from the box seats to the winner's circle, Charles, 85, was in tears. His wife, holding tightly to his hand, turned to him as they made their way through the clubhouse and said, "I don't believe it! We won the Travers!"
"We did it!" Charles said. "Oh, boy! That's something. It's about time!"
In fact, it had been only seven years since they married, only five since they bought their first six yearlings together and decided to get into the racing business. For most of his life, Charles Payson had been one of this country's richest and most successful industrialists. He had been a copper baron, a sugar importer and at one time held the first patent on stainless steel. His wife of 51 years, the late Joan Whitney Payson, founded the New York Mets and, in partnership with her brother, John Hay (Jock) Whitney, owned Greentree Stud, for years one of America's most prominent thoroughbred nurseries.
But Payson didn't get personally involved in the racing business until he married Virginia Kraft in 1977. She was a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED associate editor, and they met while she was on assignment at his 16,000-acre ranch in Florida. "I went down to do a story about turkey shooting," she says. "I spent a long weekend with Charlie and his four shooting friends. I decided, having observed him that weekend, that he was considerably more interesting than turkey-shooting."
The Payson fortune is estimated at $125 million, and the stable's business manager, Gerald Shanley, says that Charles and Virginia have invested about $20 million in the business in the last five years. They bought and expanded a thoroughbred training center now called Pay-son Park, in Florida, with 750 acres and 565 stalls. When they couldn't get stalls at Saratoga one summer, they bought a tract of land adjoining the racetrack and built their own 15-stall barn. "It took only 14 days," Virginia says. They have also been busy acquiring bloodstock, buying yearlings and building up a band of broodmares, which now numbers 35.
"In 1980, when we got into this, I told my husband, 'In five years I'll give you a Derby-quality horse,' " Virginia says.
With Carr de Naskra, the Paysons came to the Travers a year ahead of schedule. They didn't race him as a 2-year-old. "We gave him some time to develop," says their trainer, Richard Lundy. Carr de Naskra broke his maiden in his first start at Hialeah on Feb. 11, and two weeks later he sizzled through seven furlongs in 1:21[2/5] to win an allowance race by 3¼ lengths, looking as if he could be any kind of horse. Which made his third start, a fifth-place in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, all the more disappointing. "He bucked his shins and so we gave him some time off," Lundy says.
Carr de Naskra came bouncing back in May, winning an allowance race at Belmont by 4½ lengths. After a dull fourth in the Colin at Belmont on June 9, he ran a smashing second to Big Pistol, a multiple stakes winner, in the Governor's Cup Handicap at Bowie. A month later, Carr de Naskra crushed nine other 3-year-olds in the 1‚⅛-mile Jim Dandy at Saratoga, winning by 12¾ lengths. That set him up for the Travers.
"I couldn't have him any better than he is right now," Lundy said. "He's full of run and dead fit, and that's how you like to come up to a big one." Hoisting Pincay aboard, he gave the rider his head. "You don't have to be on the lead," Lundy told Pincay. "You come out of the gate and ride it the way you feel."
Carr de Naskra, fourth on the inside most of the way, stalked the pace-setting Big Pistol all the way to the stretch, with Pincay simply waiting for a place to say go. As Big Pistol faded and Track Barron jumped to the lead at the top of the stretch, Pincay was trapped. "I was praying for a place to go," he says. He found it as they drove past the eighth pole. Pincay asked and Carr de Naskra answered. Day and Pine Circle looked as though they wanted to win, breaking past Track Barron along the rail, but Carr de Naskra quickly grabbed the lead and held on to the wire.
"It was a fabulous ride," Virginia told Pincay, kissing the jockey in the winner's circle. "It's just incredible. We won the Travers!"